Boleslav Akselrud Professor Schrepfer Facets of The Octopus In Frank Norris’ first installment of his intended three part series on wheat, and the crop’s far reaching global implications, The Octopus: A Story of California, the author adapts the events and circumstances surrounding the 1880 Mussel Slough tragedy to paint the picture of the historically rugged and prospecting American west’s collision with large industrial capital and monopolized industry; specifically the railways of the Southern Pacific Rail Company.
Norris adopts, and in some ways pioneers the naturalist style of writing at the turn of the twentieth-century, but The Octopus is not merely a work of fiction; the novel provides a realist perspective to a complex period of the American frontier’s history. While depicting this unique period of the American frontier, Norris is however, guilty of tailoring certain characters to fit his purposes, and taking advantage of his control of the reader’s emotions, specifically interpretations of good and evil, to align readers with his views of the betrayal of the farming industry by the unstoppable force of the rail industry.
The book opens with an introduction to a set of grain farms in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Readers are introduced to Presley, a young man well-educated at an eastern college who chose to live on one of the local ranches, Los Muertos, due, in part, to the cleanliness of the air after nearly dying of tuberculosis. Presley is a writer, but at the beginning of the novel, he states that his artistic inspiration has all but failed him, also playing a hand in his relocation to the Valley. He was in search of a subject; […] he did not know exactly what; some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible…” (Norris, 33) Presley will grow to be the most prevalent character in the book, and he would eventually find his inspiration, and make himself, and through him Norris’ viewpoint heard. As Norris introduces Presley and other characters, he also lays the historic foundation for the plot of the novel. Norris writes of the landscape of the farms, adding historical background all the while.
He describes Presley’s daytime bicycle ride through the farmland of the Valley, and through Presley’s eyes, he tells the reality of farming in California. The land in the San Joaquin was settled due in large part to the laying of rails in the area. The government worked a deal with the rail company that would allow the railway to own half of the plots within a twenty mile radius of the tracks, in return for laying them. This land, however, was not very well suited for much, especially farming due to the lack of irrigation.
Because of this, the rail company offered much of their undeveloped land to settlers, with the promise of allowing them to purchase this land at rates as low as $2. 50 per acre later. The allure of the west, and the spirit of the frontier yielded interest from many, but profits for this group were contingent not only on the success of the crop, which at the time of the novel was doing poorly from lack of irrigation, but also on the logistics involved in transporting it, and by extension, the railways.
As Presley rode along on his bicycle delivering mail on his way to the old town of Guadalajara, he mused on the manifestations of the issue of climate: “After the harvest, small though that harvest had been, the ranches seemed asleep. […] There was no rain, there was no wind, there was no growth, no life; the very stubble had no force even to rot. […] [On] the […] only [division of the ranch] whereon the wheat had been successful, [this was] no doubt because of the Little Mission Creek that ran through it. (Norris, 44-47) Clearly, the ranchers would have to improve the land in order to reap any benefit from it, but in a leaflet distributed by the rail company advertising the land, the Southern and Pacific Rail Company stipulated that land prices would not be increased due to improvements performed by the farmers, such as irrigation. The issue of the railroad is at the heart of Norris’ novel. The author presents his work in such a way that clearly defines good and evil, leaving no place for ambiguity.
Although he starts slowly, there can be no mistaking that his ultimate motive is painting the railways red. The first clear indication of this is evident in Presley’s interaction with one of his close friends, an engineer for the Southern and Pacific Rail Company, Dyke. Dyke is initially portrayed as a salt of the earth employee, working without complaint for the company in order to dote on his daughter, Sidney. Dyke continues to explain to Presley that he has had his pay cut dramatically, and when arguing against this, the company simply fired him.
Here, Norris uses this situation to express just how much of a monopoly Southern and Pacific had, and by extension, Norris sprouts the roots for the reader’s hatred of the rail company. Presley advises Dyke to attempt to find another rail company to work for, but when Dyke presses him to suggest another, he is silenced. “Dyke’s challenge was unanswerable. ” (Norris , 56) Through this, Norris is able to express just how important the ‘benevolence’ of the rail company was. Quite simply, the farms had been built around the rail, and thus almost every person’s finances depended on its policies and even its whims.
Naturally, when a profitable industry smote the hopes of its dependents, a sense of anger is developed by the reader. In this sense, Norris takes advantage of the reader, and while not directly misinforming his audience, he plays on emotions to portray history in such a way that is privy to his agenda of depicting good and evil. Although it is difficult to condone the actions of the rail companies, throughout the novel Norris places such perspective as would justify others evil in light of the rail company’s greed.
After Dyke was fired by the company, he decides to pursue an agricultural approach to making a living. He invests his saved earnings in a plot of land upon which he can farm hops, but even before his first harvest is ready, he learns that the railway has more than doubled its former rates for transporting the crop. Realizing that this eliminates his profit margin, he does not even bother harvesting his crop, and before long he finds himself a drunk, spending weeks on end in Caraher’s saloon.
He then decides to use his knowledge of the trains to become a robber and sometimes a murderer. Norris, however, through Presley finds ways to justify this evil, and even further justifies attempts on the life of S. Behrman, the designated local villain. Regardless of the author’s intent, robbery and murder are facets of evil, but Norris places this above the actions of the rail company, using Dyke as a folk hero. In such pursuits, Norris jeopardizes The Octopus as a veritable historical source.
History is not supposed to be subjective, and while this is often difficult to realize, such instances as described above display Norris’ use of the reader’s emotions to align an audience to his cause, and ultimately hinder the effectiveness of the novel as a historical document. Norris’ proliferation of this double-standard is evident not only in the heart wrenching betrayal of Dyke by the rail company, but also in the character of Magnus Derrick. Derrick owns the Los Muertos ranch, and is depicted by Norris as the proud champion of his laborers, called ‘the Governor’ by his respecting workers.
This is the initial impression of the character, and it stays so, even when the uglier side of Magnus is shown. Magnus is described as an old school prospector, having made his money through the sale of his portion of the Corpus Christi gold mine in the middle of the nineteenth-century. With the crop not doing so well, and the threat of seizure of his ranch by the rail company, Derrick is faced with a moral dilemma. He must either enter the corruption of the day and submit to bribery, or lose all of his land and livelihood.
When he is faced with certain defeat in the struggle with climbing freight rates, Magnus folds and aligns himself with the view that corruption is a necessary evil. The effects of this decision are far reaching, and Magnus finds himself blackmailed by the proprietor of the local newspaper who, on the rail company’s payroll, had become privy to the corruption. After the novel’s version of the armed conflict at Mussel Slough, Magnus finds himself with a dead son, no land, and a conscience that drives him to insanity.
Despite the clear lack of judgment by Magnus and the obvious evil that partaking in corruption implies, his poor decisions are excused by Norris as instincts to gamble everything that he retained from his prospecting days, in hopes of making the best for himself and his dependents. Norris further blames the rail industry for forcing Magnus into a situation where he could not come out the better, and thus can pin the blame for Derrick’s demise on the railway, regardless of how evident it is that Magnus had a hand in his own undoing.
In Norris’ eyes, there is no room for ambiguity, and he minces no words in the process of representing the Southern and Pacific Company as an evil machine. The namesake of the novel carries with it a dark connotation, and there is little doubt that this is strategically placed by the author. The rail industry is continually cast against the masses of workers, a manifestation of Norris’ ever clearer populist agenda. When showing more of Presley’s musings, he furthers the above views. “[Presley] told himself that, as a part of the people, he loved the people and sympathized with their hopes and fears, and joys and griefs. …] He had set himself the task of giving true, absolutely true, poetical expression to the life of the ranch, and yet, again and again, he brought up against the railroad, that stubborn iron barrier against which his romance shattered itself to froth and disintegrated, flying spume. His heart went out to the people. ” (Norris, 41) Norris continually describes the rail industry as a machine, devoid of humanity and inherently evil. At the end of the first chapter, this view is compounded, once again through Presley’s character. Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus. ” (Norris, 128) Although Norris describes an important period in the history of the American West, he is also an author, and The Octopus is a work of fiction.
There are vast quantities of historical background in Norris’ story, and even some parallels to real people and events, but the author can use his words to sway the thoughts of his readers, and at times Norris can demonize the rail industry while also justifying the actions of his protagonists. Thus, while historical novels may offer unique insight to events such as the Mussel Slough Massacre, the emotional control that the authors have can sometimes skew perspectives.
Works Cited Norris, Frank. The Octopus: A Story of California. Gutenberg Project, 1995. PDF.